In the wind-up to the Moon landing’s 50th anniversary, NASA nostalgia has been at an all-time high in Space City. The Houston area has hosted more commemorative events than you can shake a space shuttle at these past few weeks, but possibly the most, shall we say, unique of them—an unassuming little ceremony held earlier this month at the Johnson Space Center, where a long out-of-office former lawmaker was given an award for his work backing NASA by a foundation created by an even longer out-of-power European royal family that most assume was extinct as of World War I—flew almost completely under the radar. 

Even the honoree, former Congressman Nick Lampson, admitted this was all a bit unexpected, as he stood before a crowd of about 100 people who had gathered on an early July evening to listen to speakers like famed Apollo-era NASA icon George Abbey as they waited for this particular moment. In fact, Lampson had never heard of the charity, the Association for the Promotion of Peace, he admitted, just before receiving the organization’s Flame of Peace Medal of Friendship from his newest fan, Archduke Sandor Habsburg-Lothringen, a descendant of the famous Habsburgs of Austria.

Lampson’s candor underscored the oddity of the evening. That isn’t to say that the lifelong Democrat and proud small-town, Beaumont-bred lawmaker didn’t deserve to be lauded. His five-term stint in the U.S. House resulted in plenty of praiseworthy milestones, like securing an extra $300 million for NASA’s budget in 2007, two years before he left office. 

That move supported the creation of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an experiment designed to help scientists discover dark matter and unravel the mystery of our universe’s origin, which sits atop the International Space Station today. But as to why he was being honored for his congressional work now, roughly a decade later? It has a lot to do with the state of the world today, according to the archduke who presented Lampson's pin. “It is true leadership that the world needs today most of all,” said Habsburg-Lothringen, “and it is so important that there are leaders like Nicholas Valentino Lampson.”

This branch of the Habsburgs does have some Houston connections. Virginia Engel von Voss, Habsburg-Lothringen’s mother, once lived in Houston and married his father Archduke Dominic Habsburg-Lothringen here as well.

The evening started off with addresses from NASA-centric figures, including former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz, the first Latin American U.S. immigrant to visit space, and Abbey, former JSC director and current Space Policy Fellow at Rice’s Baker Institute. 

When Abbey took to the podium, he praised Lampson for his support for NASA over the years. From there, it was on to the main attraction, presenting Lampson with his award.

The former congressman once again used his platform to talk up NASA once more, urging the crowd to keep in mind that we only got boots on the moon 50 years ago due to the kind of bold vision that many contend is lacking in today's federal space program. In his closing address, he made the stakes clear. “I hope we can muster that spirit,” Lampson said. “Our kids grew up with stars in their eyes...and I’m fearful we’ve lost some of that.”

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